Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

2/13 2014

Coals, Tongs and Human Mediation

In the lectionary, we have just finished contemplating Jesus’ presentation in the Temple—or, as we call it in Orthodoxy, “the Meeting” of the Lord. That is a particular gift to me, since my decision to enter the Orthodox church came partly as a result of this feast. (But God works in mysterious ways!) Five years ago I was working through Isaiah 6 for my worship book, Grand Entrance. I was struck by the numerous tensions or paradoxes when the heavens are opened for Isaiah. The Lord is transcendent (holy! holy! holy!) but also immanent (“the earth is full of his glory”). The seraphim have faces like us, yet cover their strange forms with wings. There are two seraphim, and yet one voice calls out. The coal is not to be touched, picked out gingerly with tongs, yet carried in the angel’s hand and placed immediately upon the prophet’s lips.  It is the last paradox that struck me.

What is it about our Lord that makes it both possible for him to come to us personally, and that demands that this “coming” be mediated? I had always thought that the immediate presence of the Lord and mediation were incompatible. But here, Isaiah blithely puts the concepts side by side, without comment. Visions are indeed wonderful, for in them the mysteries of God, the things that we find paradoxical, can be poignantly and convincingly pictured for us. Could it be that my suspicion of mediation was an over-reaction to mediation wrongly pictured and unhelpfully taught? Medieval stories of exaggerated and magical intercession of the saints certainly figured in my thinking at the time.

In my memory also echoed the chorus that I sang as a child Sunday after Sunday, “For there is one God and one Mediator, ‘twixt God and man…the Man Christ Jesus!” (Oops! 1960s exclusive language!) Yes, it is true that “only One is holy; only One is the Lord”—but this Holy One is not jealous of his own glory, and in his incarnation has shared it with us. This includes the grace of mediation:  “How do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband?” (1 Cor 7:16);  “[Saul,] rise, and enter the city, and you will be told [by a human being] what you are to do!” (Acts 9:9); “Whoever brings back a sinner …will save his soul from death” (James 5:19).  Evidently, our God delights to use human mediators!

So what does this have to do with baby Jesus in the Temple. The answer is in an ancient Orthodox hymn: “Christ, the coal of fire, whom holy Isaiah foresaw, now rests in the arms of the God-bearer Mary as in a pair of tongs, and He is given to the elder” To Simeon, and to us!  Jesus the Christ, comes to us by human as well as divine agency, born of the Holy Spirit AND the Virgin Mary. So I learned to give thanks for her, and for others who have borne Him to us. That thanks does not rob him of his unique glory but celebrates the wonder that we have seen his glory since he has met us, used us, and enlightened our darkness.

Written by Dr. Edith M. Humphrey, William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary


12/27 2013

God Is With Us

  Praise the Lord! 
          How good it is to sing praises to our God; 
          for God is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.  Psalm 147:1

Singing! Christmas nights were filled with singing when I was growing up.  Several generations of my family would gather in my grandmother’s kitchen or living room and sing. As children, my cousins, siblings, and I would reluctantly join in with the choir of voices, because it was Christmas day and “there should be singing;” it was fitting. The vocal playlist would range from “Joy to the World,” to “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and favorite Gospel melodies.

There, in the room, amidst the messiness of crumpled wrapping papers, half eaten dishes and sparkling lights, voices would emerge sometimes off key but always in concord. This is where the family tradition of Christmas singing began and continued year after year. The older I became the better I understood that something more than crumbled wrapping papers, half eaten dishes, and misplaced notes were in the room.

There, in the room, amidst the year’s joys and sorrows, hopes and disappointments, fulfillment and ongoing yearnings, singing was proclamation; singing became testimony; and singing reshaped reality. God is near! God is here! God is with us! Through singing we brushed up against and encountered an intangible wholeness, peace, and solace. Through singing, praises were offered to a gracious God who is inclined to come close to us. Through singing we were inclined to continue living in the beauty and messiness of life.

Today, on December 27th we no longer wait in Advent anticipation. We celebrate God’s presence with us. God has drawn near and God draws us near. We live in the midst of life’s beauty and messiness with the presence of God. We look ahead to a world shaped and reshaped by the presence of God. This is the joy and bidding of Christmas.

May we find wholeness, deep peace, and solace in the presence of God; may we be shaped and reshaped by the presence of God; and may we continue to shape and reshape the beauty and messiness of life with the help of God.

…and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”  Matthew 1:23

Written by: The Rev. Dr. Lisa Thompson, Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary


12/18 2013

Benediction for the Waiting Ones

An Advent litany from the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer reads,

God of the watching ones,
give us Your benediction.

God of the waiting ones,
give us Your good word for our souls.

God of the watching ones,
the waiting ones,
the slow and suffering ones,
give us Your benediction,
Your good word for our souls,
that we might rest.

God of the watching ones,
the waiting ones,
the slow and suffering ones,

and of the angels in heaven,

and of the child in the womb,

give us Your benediction,
Your good word for our souls,
that we might rest and rise
in the kindness of Your company.

I love a good benediction:
the brief, yet powerful truths,
and the charge to get busy serving and loving out in the world.

The benediction both nourishes and commissions.

My affinity for a good benediction grew during my college years when a pastor of mine offered this simple blessing, delivered with warm hands on my nervous face, “Jesus loves you, Lance, he always has, and he always will.”

I sigh now when I think about that blessing. I want to hear it again. I don’t want to merely read it. I yearn to hear, to feel that blessing. I want to know the peace and joy that come with such affection and hope. But I have to wait.

During this Advent season we practice waiting and hoping. We want to hear the Lord’s benediction, those good words for our souls. But for now, we are the waiting ones, the watching ones. Some of us might be the slow and suffering ones of the litany above. But if God’s coming is anything like it was last time, the slow and suffering will be in good company.

Written by Lance Hershberger, senior MDiv student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

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